Ontogeny

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Chapter Twenty

“You demanded our presence,” said Arwin Tsocco as he was shown into the conference room. “And so we came. I assume you wish to know whether we will assist you in your war with Carrow.”

“I can already guess the answer to that question,” said Leothan. “We declared war because you left us no choice. You were about to formally dissolve the agreement between our two countries, whereupon they would have invaded us and probably conquered us very quickly. Our only chance of winning was to start the war on our terms. We still may not win, but we will at least make them pay such a high price that they will regret having started this whole thing.”

“You still maintain that Carrow was responsible for the Empire’s recent misfortunes, then?”

“It is the truth, Ambassador. Ambassador, you yourself stated that stealing your export markets would only make sense if it was part of some larger scheme. I asked you here so I could ask whether you have any idea what that larger scheme may have been.”

“No, but we deduce its existence from your actions.”

“Our actions? You mean declaring war on a larger, more powerful country after having alienated the only ally that could have saved us from defeat?” A look of doubt appeared on the Ambassador's face, and Leothan allowed himself to feel a grain of hope. ”Use your imagination, Ambassador. What might that larger scheme be? Never mind whether there's any evidence, or even whether it makes any kind of logical sense. Just let your imagination fly. What might that larger scheme be?”

“The evidence against you is overwhelming! Your agents left identification at the crime scenes! A saboteur was killed by guards, in his pocket was a photograph of himself in the uniform of the Helberion army holding a half raised adopted cat. Helberion coins were found at the scene of another act of sabotage. They must have fallen from a hole in a saboteur’s pocket...”

“Ambassador, just how incompetent do you think our agents are? Do you think we send clowns to sabotage factories? Returning to the ‘larger scheme.’ Perhaps you think we intend to hire a huge mercenary army with the money we make from your export markets? Use it to conquer Carrow and then go on to declare war on Kelvon itself? I'm genuinely curious, Ambassador. What do you think this larger scheme is? What might it be? Come on, Ambassador! Use your imagination!”

“Please do not raise your voice, your Majesty! It is unbecoming!” A look of fear crossed Arwin Tsocco’s face as he realised he'd crossed the line of protocol, but Leothan was prepared to overlook it, being encouraged by the Ambassador's growing discomfort.

“Ambassador, it has just come to my attention that there is indeed a larger scheme, but it is not a scheme of ours. There is something bigger going on. That is why I asked you to come here. I need to know. Is the Empire aware of something else going on? Something concerning the Radiants and the Hetin folk?”

“You're not suggesting that you have allied yourself with them?”

“Not us, but someone might have.” He beckoned the Brigadier to come forward and stand beside him. “This is Brigadier Weyland James. He has recently returned from a successful mission to find a cure for Princess Ardria.”

“Successful? That is wonderful news, your Majesty! As for the Brigadier, his reputation precedes him.”

“Indeed. That is why I place great weight on what he has just told me. While on that mission, he discovered that there is a threat to all of us. Not just Helberion, not just the Empire, but the whole human world. I'll allow him to explain.”

The Brigadier gave the same account of his mission as he'd just given the King, and outlined the conclusions they’d drawn regarding the Radiants. He showed him some of the artefacts he'd brought back from the long buried city, and the translations of the Hetin books. Lastly he told the Ambassador what they'd learned from the Princess just a few minutes before. “The Radiants intend to destroy our civilisation,” he concluded. “They will do it by starting wars between human nations, to prevent us from learning of their involvement. I now believe that the war between Helberion and Carrow was started by the Radiants, although we don't know whether the Carrowmen are willing participants or unwilling dupes.”

“Then stop the war!” said the Ambassador. “Withdraw your armies!”

“We can't. Carrow wants war. They could have agreed to the royal marriage, then seized control of the unified country. Your own analysts must had wondered why they didn't do that.” The look on the Ambassador's face confirmed it. “I now believe that it's the result of Radiant influence. They don't want a single unified kingdom, they want two kingdoms in ruins.”

“You could deny them that by refusing to fight.”

“I will not sacrifice my kingdom!” said Leothan adamantly. “If you will not help defend us, we must defend ourselves!”

“Even if you’re doing just what the Radiants want you to do? Some might see this as a last, desperate attempt to secure Imperial support for your war with Carrow. Help us or the Radiants will get you next.”

“As the largest and most powerful human nation, they must already be drawing up plans against you,” said the Brigadier. “What we need to know is whether any other nations are behaving in unexpected ways, whether tensions are growing between former peaceful allies, that sort of thing. We have our own intelligence service, but we lack the resources that yours do. If the Radiants are exerting their influence over any other countries, the Empire would probably know about it before we do.”

“I am not privy to Kelvon intelligence reports.”

“Then we ask that you pass on the request to the Emperor,” said Leothan. “If the Radiants are taking action to destroy our civilisation, we must know about it so that we can stop them. I must ask, though, that you convey our suspicions to as few people as possible. So long as the Radiants do not know that we’re on to them, they have no reason to act prematurely. Their plans against us may take years to mature. That gives us plenty of time to plan and prepare.”

“Your Majesty, you must realise how this looks to me. These are extraordinary claims you are making, and you have nothing more to back them up than a few dusty artefacts and the uncorroborated testimonies of three individuals...”

“One of whom is my daughter!” said the King in a growl.

“With all due respect, Majesty, she was hardly herself at the time. Her body was changed in dramatic ways, can you be sure she was completely rational? Maybe she imagined the voices of the Radiants. The goat girl, well, a less reliable witness can hardly be imagined, and you yourself said that the museum curator might have had an innocent reason to lie to you.”

“All the more reason to gather more information,” said the Brigadier. “We must all share what we know.”

“And we must avoid fighting amongst ourselves if at all possible,” added the King. “Our hope is that, if our present operation against Carrow is successful and we reduce their army by the amount we hope to, they may agree to a negotiated settlement, especially if the Empire lends its weight to it. Then we share resources. All the human nations of the world. We create a special international intelligence service to investigate the Radiant threat. We have to get ahead of this thing while we still can. We have been extraordinarily lucky to learn what they're doing so early, we must not squander the opportunity we've been given.”

The Ambassador squirmed uncomfortably. “I know how Emperor Tyron will react when I take this to him. He'll say that you’re mad and that I'm gullible for believing you.”

“So you will take it to him?” said the Brigadier.

Arwin sighed. “I will tell him what you've told me. What good it will do...”

“All we ask is that you try,” said the King. “The Brigadier will go with you, and he will take some of the Hetin artefacts with him. As you yourself said, he has a reputation that extends to the Empire. His word will carry weight.” The Brigadier looked at him and nodded.

“I'll make preparations to leave straight away. I was probably about to be recalled anyway. I've instructed my staff to act on the assumption that Kelvon is about to sever all diplomatic contact with your country.” He looked at the Brigadier. “You are, of course, aware that members of foreign armed services are only allowed in Kelvon with special permission from the Emperor.”

“The Brigadier is retired, and his batman has never been formally recruited into the army. They will be travelling as private citizens.”

“Armed private citizens. Still, with the brigands and highwaymen that plague the countryside, I can't imagine anyone objecting to that.”

The King rose, and the other two men stood as well. “I know you still don't fully believe me, that you still have doubts about our protestations of innocence. I want to thank you for giving us the benefit of the doubt. We have been friends for a long time. I would like to think that we are still friends.”

“Your Majesty, on the one hand I would like nothing better than to know that you are telling the truth and for our friendship to be reconfirmed, but on the other hand, if you are right about the Radiants...”

Leothan nodded. “May Those Above be with us all,’ he said.

☆☆☆

Emperor Tyron Alexis Alexander stroked his moustache as he listened to the report on the progress of the Carrow, Helberion war being given by his intelligence chief, Serge Petrov. It contained a lot of numbers that he only paid partial attention to, but the gist of it was that, in the expert opinion of the analysts, Helberion had about a fifty fifty chance of pulling off their extraordinary coup. It seemed very likely that they would succeed in destroying Salford, killing or taking prisoner the twenty thousand Carrow troops stationed there, but they were tired now. Exhausted by march and battle. The next garrison city, Tibre, was the largest, and there was a considerable chance that they'd received warning of what was happening by now. Those Above only knew what kind of stress King Leothan must be under as he waited anxiously for the next messenger to arrive.

“Technically, we are obligated by treaty to help Helberion,” said Kutuvol, the Emperor’s Foreign Minister. He had a large dog standing beside him, a bull mastiff, staring up at him in total devotion. His son, only newly parent bonded and yet to show any significant physical change. He reached across to rub its neck distractedly. “They struck before we could officially break off relations.”

“The treaty said that we would help defend Helberion against Carrow aggression,” replied the Emperor. “It says nothing about aiding them in a war of conquest.” He was wearing an overly elaborate uniform in the military style, a reminder to everyone in the room that he had served in the army for several years, back when his father had still held the throne. There was a sword and pistol strapped to his waist, both more decorative than functional. The guards that surrounded him at all times ensured that he would never again have to fight like a common soldier.

“It says that, in the event of another war between Carrow and Helberion...”

“We will not get sucked into a war we have no interest in. They knew they were forfeiting our friendship when they acted against us. Our men are needed here, to keep order in the provinces. We cannot send them off on some foreign escapade while things are so uncertain in Ukrann and Listania.”

“If we do not honour our treaty obligations, what message will that send to everyone else we have a treaty with? What will happen to our international reputation?”

“What did we care what lesser nations think of us?” said Demos Tiver, Undersecretary of State. Reputed to have been one of the best warriors in the Empire in his youth, he had long since gone to fat as a result of his indulgent lifestyle. He had a spattering of sores around his nose and mouth that made the Emperor feel faintly ill whenever he looked at him, but his contacts in the Constituent Assembly made him unfortunately irreplaceable. “The only thing they need to, to...” He paused a moment while he thumped his huge stomach, then let out a loud belch. “...to think about us is the size of our armies!”

A couple of months before, the Emperor might have argued with him. Helberion had been a valuable ally in the past, but relations had taken a drastic downturn since then. Their victories against Carrow in decades past had given this new King ideas above his station, it seemed. Made him ambitious for things that were way beyond his grasp. He thought for a moment. “Issue a statement,” he said. “The Empire cannot, and does not, condone acts of international aggression. We condemn the actions of King Leothan, and we consider that his declaration of war against Carrow renders our offer to defend them against Carrow aggression irrelevant. We offer to mediate between them if they wish to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. Other than that, we will not become involved. Wrap that up in all the usual fancy language and send it to all our ambassadors, to be communicated to the government of the countries in which they are stationed.”

Heads nodded around the table. “Very wise, your Majesty,” said Boros Fedoros, the Minister of Domestic Affairs. “We cannot send men abroad until the situation in the west has been dealt with. The separatists grow bolder every day. There is even evidence that Helberion agents may be supporting them.”

“What evidence?” demanded the Emperor.

“Separatist operations are being funded by organisations that have Helberion connections. Whether these connections go all the way to the palace, we can't say, but it may be significant that none of the acts of sabotage for which we're blaming Helberion have taken place in either Ukrann or Listania.”

“You think Helberion may be trying to destabilise the Empire?” gasped Kutuvol in disbelief. “Helberion is a small country, utterly insignificant on a global scale. For them to attempt something so ambitious...”

“The Empire has always been a friend to Helberion!” said General Petrov. “It would make no sense for them to do such a thing! Could it be that Leothan is telling the truth, that Carrow agents are trying to frame them?”

“I always thought the evidence against them was too convenient,” agreed Kutuvol. “A Carrow plot feels right to me. We all know what they're like, you only have to look at their history. Leothan, in contrast, is a man of honour, loved by his people.”

“You've been spending too long in that backward shithole,” said Demos Tiver, scratching at his swollen neck. “Too many banquets laid on in your honour, too many flattering speeches to swell your ego. You’ve swallowed the line they laid out for you. You don't see them clearly any more.”

“Perhaps I see them more clearly than you do.”

“We can’t make policy based on what feels right,” said the Emperor. “And I don't want to be distracted by some utterly insignificant conflict on the other side of the continent. We will keep an eye on the war, but we must keep our attention fixed firmly on the west, where the real threat lies.”

He stood, everyone else stood as well, and he went to stand in front of the map of the known world. He lifted a monacle to his eye to examine it. Half of it was blue. Darkest in the centre around Farwell, the capital city, growing lighter in patches with greater distance from it to signify provinces with greater or lesser degrees of self determination. Further away were patches of green or red showing allies and enemies of the Empire, and scattered all over, like patches of inflamed flesh on a plague victim, were irregularly shaped patches of yellow denoting Radiant territories. The yellow patches were spaced closer together towards the edge of the map, but those parts of the world were far away and poorly explored. Educated people laughed at the notion, proposed by fools, that the Radiant territories all joined together to completely encircle the human lands on all sides except the north, where the ocean lay.

The Emperor examined the light blue patches that denoted the troublesome provinces that had been causing him so much grief lately. “What is it that they want? Do they have genuine grievances?”

“Their grievances are the same as they've always been,” replied Boros Federos. “More home rule, the right to levy their own taxes to be spent in their own areas...”

“The more we give them, the more they want!” said Andreas Copill, the Finance Minister. “Your illustrious father made concessions. Instead of pacifying them, it made them worse!”

“Yes,” agreed Tiver, his whole body jiggling as he nodded emphatically. “No more concessions! They are Imperial citizens, Majesty, they must be reminded of the fact. I recommend a hard crackdown. Teach them what it means to rise up in rebellion.”

“Has there been any actual rebellion?,” asked Kutuvol. “Last I heard it was nothing but talk. The usual grumblings you always get among the common people.”

“Talk leads to action. Let them say whatever they want, and soon they'll be planting bombs, kidnapping officials, shooting the families of soldiers. We must nip it in the bud. If we show them now that such talk will not be tolerated, they'll soon fall in line.”

“If we crack down too hard, we may cause the very trouble we wish to prevent,” said the Emperor. “Even so, some action must be taken. I want the provinces pacified. Whatever it takes.”

“There are agitators, Majesty,” said Andreas Copill. “People who wish to pursue their own political ambitions by stirring up the masses. They tell them that the Empire is the cause of all their troubles, whatever those troubles happen to be. Life would be better, they say, if they governed themselves, and, of course, it is these very same agitators who would be the new leaders if they became independent.”

“Then they must be stopped,” said the Emperor firmly. “I want these agitators stopped. I want them found and arrested. Any genuine grievances they have must be addressed of course. I am a benevolent leader and I love my people. Having said that, though, we cannot favour them at the expense of the rest of the Empire. If we reward troublemakers, we'll have them springing up all over the place!”

“Very true, your Majesty!” agreed Tiver. “If other provinces see them profiting from their selfishness, they will be encouraged to do the same. The prosperity of the whole Empire comes from our unity. That unity must be preserved at all costs! People respect strength! We must never forget how the Empire was born in the first place, and we must certainly make sure that the people never forget it!”

“Perhaps that's the problem,” said Kutuvol. “Many of the provinces did not join the Empire of their own free will...”

“They attacked us, back when Kelvon was just one small country among many!” said Copill. “We finished what they started!”

“I don't think anyone here needs a history lesson,” said the Emperor irritably. “However they came to be part of the Empire, a part of the Empire is what they are now, and a part of the Empire is what they will remain. We will do whatever it takes to make sure of that.”

He turned his back on them to study the map again, the sign that the meeting was over, and the others filed out of the room as the Emperor's Personal Secretary came forward to tell him what was next on the day's busy schedule. Outside, Tiver was met by his new assistant, Fienwell, who fell in beside him as the Undersecretary waddled along the corridor. “How did the meeting go?”

“Well. The Emperor is reacting as we hoped. How is the Secretary of State?”

“His condition continues to deteriorate,” replied Fienwell. His face, neck and hands were covered by a thick layer of pink powder, to hide the mottling of his skin, he said. He had been raised from a leopard and, as was sometimes the case, the spots had remained in his human form. He claimed that it was embarrassing to him, but some people raised from fearsome predators wore their spots or stripes with pride. “The doctors say he may go back to the ground very soon now.”

“Those Above forbid!” said Tiber as sincerely as he could. “If, though, the worst should happen...” He looked up and down the corridor. The others were striding away much faster, driven by urgent business, and he waited until they were out of earshot before continuing. “If the worse should happen, we must ensure that it is I who replaces him. I am aware that I am not the most popular candidate, but Trask would bring disaster to the Empire. He is far too moderate for the troubled times in which we live.”

“I have heard that he his popularity may not last, sir.”

Tiver looked at him. “What do you...”He paused a moment, let out a loud belch. “What do you mean?”

“There are rumours, sir. Rumours that he is a little too fond of the drink, and that when he is ‘under the grape’, as they say, he can be a little, er, indiscrete.” At Tiver's puzzled look he continued. “He talks too much, Sir. About things he shouldn't talk about. About people. Government ministers, members of the Assembly. Gossip, sir, that could cause embarrassment to powerful people if it were to reach the wrong ears. If it goes on, it could cause his popularity to evaporate overnight and you would be all but confirmed as Skelby's replacement.”

“Hmmm. If the wrong bit of gossip were to reach the right ears, we could rid ourselves of two problems at the same time. Secretary Athan has been causing problems for me lately. It would be quite useful if Trask got blind drunk and told some gossiping barman about Athan’s gambling problem.”

“Does he have a gambling problem, sir?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course not. I think I know a barman who might be prepared to say something along those lines in return for the right inducement.”

“Excellent. Two things are certain in this world, Fienwell. Taxes and that rumours, once started, will spread.”

“Yes sir.”

“And, of course, it goes without saying that if I should be confirmed as the next Secretary of State, I would want you to be my Undersecretary. I'm sure that your talents would be very useful to me.”

“I would endeavour to serve you to the very best of my ability, sir.”

“Good, good. The Empire needs men like us, Fienwell. Men with a firm hand on the tiller. Willing to do what needs to be done to keep order. There are forces of chaos at work. They need to be rooted out and destroyed, by any means necessary. Our dear Emperor sometimes has difficulty seeing the need for this. He means well, of course, and my loyalty to him is unswerving and absolute, but every so often he needs to be, as it were, steered in the right direction.”

“You know him far better than I do, sir, but I trust your judgement absolutely.”

“The measures we will have to take may seem harsh, but our children and grandchildren, who will live in the stronger, more secure world we will create, will thank us for them. Great men are often unpopular in their own lifetimes. What makes them great is that they see the bigger picture. They live for their descendants, not for themselves.”

“I will do my best to help you, sir.”

“I know you will. I bless the good fortune that brought you to me, Fienwell. It is amazing, is it not, how often great events hinge upon the most unlikely of circumstances.”

“You would have done what needs to be done whether or not I was here to assist you, sir.”

“Probably, probably.” Tiver paused a moment to look out through one of the windows that lined the corridor. The city lay spread out below them in all its glory. Towers of obsidian striped with gold, parks with flowers and fountains, hundreds of people making their way along the wide streets on foot or in horse drawn carriages and, above everything, the graceful, serene forms of Radiants, shining like paper lanterns. Men and woman stood on top of buildings, waving their arms to attract their attention, and Tiver saw one of them lifted up into the air by glowing tentacles that wrapped around his waist and torso. His companions, standing beside him, cheered and waved as the Radiant carried him up and away into the clear, blue sky. Maybe he'll be back one day, thought the Undersecretary with uncharacteristic whimsy. How many of the Radiants currently drifting overhead were once citizens of this city?

Tiver turned himself away from the window. “Well, I have to attend a meeting of the Security Council. Please keep an eye on Skelby for me. Please see that he is not disturbed, we don't want exhaustion to worsen his condition. Make sure everyone understands that I am taking care of all his duties until he recovers. If he recovers.”

“I will do that, sir.” Fienwell watched as the Undersecretary waddled off down the corridor, then looked for a small, empty room to duck into. He closed the door behind him, then produced a small hand mirror to examine his neck. As he'd thought, his collar had rubbed away some of the powder, revealing a thin strip of bare skin which was glowing with a faint radiance. He produced a tin of powder and a small brush with which he patched himself up until the telltale glow was safely hidden.

*Report!* said a voice in his head.

*Everything is going to plan,* he thought back. *The government is going to take a harder line, and my colleagues among the rebels are encouraging them to step up their activities. We should have a nice civil war under way before the end of the year.*

*Good,* replied the voice. *Continue.*

Fienwell put a couple of finishing touches to his makeup, then put away the brush, tin and mirror and left the room, humming to himself as he went back to work.

End of book one

☆☆☆

The Ontogeny Series continues in book two, The Electric Messiah, and book three, The Radiant War.

☆☆☆

The Electric Messiah

Volume Two of the Ontogeny series

A time of unprecedented crisis has come. During a mission to the edge of the known world, Brigadier Weyland James discovered that humanity faces a threat so terrible that the sane mind can barely conceive it. Failure to meet this threat would mean the end of human civilisation, mankind thrown back to a life of wandering savagery, easy prey for the true masters of the planet who see humans as mere animals, theirs to use and exploit as they see fit.

Hope exists, if all mankind can unite, putting aside their petty differences for the greater good, but the truth is so unbelievable that the Brigadier faces an almost impossible task in convincing the leaders of the human world. His task is made even harder by the fact that several governments have been infiltrated by agents of the enemy, who are using their influence to sow seeds of war and chaos.

The Brigadier is not mankind’s only hope, though. In Helberion, a small group of scientists, struggling to make a major scientific breakthrough, is being hampered by assassination and sabotage. Is this the work of the enemy of mankind? King Leothan hopes it is, because it would mean that the enemy fears this new science, that it could be used to create a powerful weapon against them. A weapon that could be the Saviour of Mankind. The Electric Messiah...

☆☆☆

The Radiant War

Volume Three of the Ontogeny series

The human world is aflame with war. Nations clash with their neighbours, while the Kelvon Empire, bulwark of the human world, stands on the brink of civil war. The plans of the enemies of mankind to destroy human civilisation, to restore their own mastery of the world, are well on the way to success.

The people of Helberion have vowed to defeat those plans, though. Peace must be restored between the various peoples of mankind so that they can combine their efforts against their true enemy. Even while her country strives to avoid conquest and defeat at the hands of their traditional enemies the Carrowmen, therefore, Princess Ardria journeys to Carrow to meet with the enemy King in an almost hopeless attempt to persuade him of the truth. All her hopes rest on the assumption that he is an unwitting dupe of the true enemy, but lurking at the back of her mind is the fear that he may be all too aware of the truth, that he may have sold out humanity for the promise of personal power. If this is true, then all that awaits her at the end of her journey through fear and danger is imprisonment and the life of a hostage to be used against her father, King Leothan.

The Brigadier would help her if he could, but he and Malone, his former batman, are far away, each having their own missions to try and ensure the survival of human civilisation. Having completed his latest task, the Brigadier must race to join her, to assist and protect her, but will he reach her before she arrives at the palace of the enemy King? And will the Princess still have a country to be Princess of by the time she arrives there? Because even if Helberion manages to defeat the all conquering armies of Carrow there is another, even deadlier threat waiting in the wings against which there may be no defence...

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